Senate's paper filing method under fire

Campaign disclosures » Amendment holding up quick passage of a solution.
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The archaic process is the same every year: Senate candidates electronically track the contributions they receive, print out the forms and hand them to the Senate secretary, who hands them to the Federal Elections Commission, which hires someone to type up the data electronically again.

The cost: $250,000.

While contenders for the U.S. House and the White House, and many other state and local races, along with political action committees, are required to file their campaign disclosures in an electronic form, the Senate asks that its candidates file the old fashioned way, on paper.

Open-government groups say the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act would save money, save time and would more quickly put up campaign finance information that is now delayed by about three months.

"It's such a no-brainer," says Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant to the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation. "It's almost hard to talk about because it's so obvious what should be done."

Utah's senators, Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both back the bill.

"This is common-sense legislation that would increase transparency and bring the Senate in line with the reporting practices of the House and the president who already file electronically," said Bennett, a co-sponsor of the measure. "This bill is long overdue, and it is time we modernize the Senate's reporting system."

Hatch, too, says there is merit to the bill and that it enjoys widespread support.

"The goals of this common-sense legislation are admirable -- to increase transparency and get the information to the public much faster," Hatch said.

But there's the rub.

While no one has yet publicly said they oppose the bill, advocates say that Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts is holding up quick passage of the measure by trying to attach his own legislation that requires groups filing ethics complaints against Congress to identify their donors. Roberts' move means the Senate cannot bypass lengthy procedural votes to pass the legislation, and his amendment is controversial.

It was unclear Friday whether Hatch or Bennett backed Roberts' amendment, or efforts to attach it to the electronic campaign disclosure bill.

Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, says the Roberts amendment is questionable, and there's no reason to attach it to the campaign disclosure bill.

"This is not serving the public interest," Malbin says of the current paper disclosure. "I cannot think of any public policy reason to do this. That is why nobody has defended the current practice, they've looked at sideshows."

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., used the same Roberts' amendment in 2007 to hold up the campaign disclosure legislation, keeping Senate leaders from bringing the bill to the floor for a vote.

Malbin adds that changing the requirements on filing campaign reports puts no burden on candidates because all senators track their donations electronically anyway, and most, if not all, have systems compatible with the FEC filing system.

"It's complete insanity," Malbin adds, "from the point of view of efficiency, let alone from the purpose of disclosure and transparency."